Penn State’s James Franklin and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst split Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2016, but only recognizing the top head coach seems rather odd.
Coaching staffs at major college football programs continue to grow, with new positions popping up all over the place, such as quality control coach, analyst, director of player personnel and assistant to the regional manager (OK, maybe not the last one). Head coaches often get too much credit, and too much blame, for what happens on the field.
It’s time to recognize the work of more than just the guy at the top. So with that in mind, here is Land of 10’s first annual All-Big Ten football coaching staff. The players get recognition at each individual position, and the coaches should, too.
James Franklin, Penn State
This was a pretty tough decision at the end of the regular season. Franklin’s Nittany Lions were a big surprise as East champions, despite never being ranked ahead of Ohio State and only nudging past Michigan after the results of the final day.
Chryst’s Badgers had endured a brutal schedule, claimed one of the conference’s two best non-Big Ten wins (against LSU) and claimed the West despite using two quarterbacks and sustaining some key injuries.
A 31-3 run by Penn State after falling behind by 21 points in the Big Ten championship game made this an easier call in the offseason. While Wisconsin did win the Cotton Bowl, Penn State’s shootout loss to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl is going to help the program in the future far more than beating a P.J. Fleck-less MAC team earlier in the day will.
Joe Moorhead, Penn State
This might be the easiest choice. Penn State’s offense evolved into one of the best in the country in the second half of the season. The Nittany Lions racked up the most yards and points allowed by Iowa and Wisconsin, two defenses that finished in the top 15 in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings, of anyone all season.
Then they faced a USC team that hadn’t allowed more than 27 points in its eight-game winning streak and scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions against the Trojans. Penn State also matched a season-high for points and had the second-most yards allowed by Temple, which finished No. 16 in the S&P+ defense rankings.
Just basing this on 2016 results alone would make Moorhead the choice, but factoring in how mediocre Penn State had been on offense the two years before his arrival makes him a runaway winner.
Don Brown, Michigan
The Big Ten had three great defenses in 2016. Michigan was slightly better than Ohio State and Wisconsin, with the biggest edge in total defense. The Wolverines were first in the conference in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense and might have swept all four categories and claimed the rushing defense title as well had they not, uh, run into Florida State’s Dalvin Cook in the Orange Bowl.
Special teams coordinator
Pat Poore/Dan O’Brien, Minnesota
Penn State and Ohio State both benefitted from strong special teams, but Minnesota finished No. 5 in the nation in Connelly’s S&P+ special teams ratings. The Gophers were excellent at covering kicks and punts, which is critical for field position, and kicker Emmit Carpenter was very accurate.
Carpenter and Penn State’s Tyler Davis both went 22 for 24 on field goals. Minnesota was second in the league in average yards allowed on kick returns and third on punts. Gophers punter Ryan Santoso was called upon 77 times, but he had 36 with no return and the other 31 went for a total of 129 yards.
Ohio State didn’t win the East because of two blocked kicks in the Penn State game. The Nittany Lions had two field goals blocked, and might have actually completed the crazy comeback against Pitt were it not for an 84-yard kick return to set up what proved to be the winning touchdown.
Poore and O’Brien were relieved of their duties when Tracy Claeys was fired. New special teams coordinator Rob Wenger came with Fleck from Western Michigan.
Mick McCall, Northwestern
Clayton Thorson was the most improved quarterback in the league in 2016. Trace McSorley might have ended up as the best, and was in his first year as a starter, but Thorson (and McCall) deserve credit here.
Thorson set a school record with 22 touchdown passes (yes, that is a true statement and it is a crazy-low total) and finished with 3,182 passing yards. That’s more than double what he threw for as a freshman in 2015.
McCall’s job status (he’s also the offensive coordinator) was unstable after 2015, but Northwestern had one of the conference’s best offenses in 2016, even if it was an offensively suppressed season for the Big Ten.
Running backs coach
Thad Ward, Illinois
Looking for tangible progress after Lovie Smith’s first year in Champaign? From 2011-15, the Illini averaged between 3.46 and 4.06 yards per rushing attempt at the end of each season.
Illinois averaged 4.78 in 2016. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the leading rusher in 2015, carried the ball only 60 times and is transferring to Vanderbilt.
Kendrick Foster had a breakout season with 720 yards on 126 carries, and freshman Reggie Corbin added 523 at more than 6 yards per touch (86 attempts). Those two could be one of the league’s best running back duos in 2017.
Wide receivers coach
Kevin Johns, Indiana
Johns, like the Minnesota guys, is no longer employed by a Big Ten institution. He was let go after Kevin Wilson resigned and defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted to head coach.
Despite a new quarterback (Richard Lagow) and one of the top three wideouts from last year missing the entire season because of injury (Simmie Cobbs), the Hoosiers still had three of the 10 most productive receivers in the league.
Nick Westbrook replaced Cobbs and finished second in the conference with 995 receiving yards, while Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige joined Westbrook with more than 50 catches.
Tight ends coach
Mickey Turner, Wisconsin
This was a tough choice between Turner and Penn State’s Ricky Rahne. Michigan’s Jake Butt won Big Ten Tight End of the Year, but Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki would have both been deserving winners, as well.
Both Fumagalli and Gesicki made big improvements in their production from the 2015 season. Turner gets the slightest of edges because Wisconsin found some valuable experience for Fumagalli’s likely successor, Kyle Penniston (six catches in 11 games), but Gesicki was the only tight end on Penn State’s roster to catch a pass in 2016.
Offensive line coach
Matt Limegrover, Penn State
Limegrover came to Penn State from Minnesota, and the offensive line made vast improvements from 2014 to 2015. After yielding 83 sacks in the past two seasons, the Nittany Lions gave up only 24 despite an extra game in 2016. The improved protection also allowed McSorley to throw the ball downfield significantly more than Christian Hackenberg was able to or allowed to in the previous two seasons.
This unit also dealt with several significant injuries, and subsequently consistent lineup shuffling. Three offensive tackles sustained season-ending injuries. The Nittany Lions finished the season with three freshmen in the starting lineup, while senior center Brian Gaia was the only player to start all 14 games at the same position.
Defensive line coach
Larry Johnson, Ohio State
Another spot where there are a few strong candidates. Michigan’s defensive line was awesome. Penn State’s was much improved as the season progressed and quite effective despite losing three starters to the NFL. Wisconsin lead the league in rushing defense.
But it’s tough to top what Johnson and his young Buckeyes accomplished. Ohio State, like Penn State, lost three starters, including first-round pick Joey Bosa, from the 2015 team.
The Buckeyes were deep and disruptive along the defensive line in 2016. They had five defensive linemen with at least seven tackles for loss, including a couple of freshmen who came off the bench.
Justin Wilcox/Tim Tibesar, Wisconsin
This was a very talented bunch, but Jack Cichy was a walk-on and T.J. Watt, while not a walk-on like his older brother, was a 3-star recruit who may have developed into a first-round pick. And Vince Biegel was also a star.
This group dealt with injuries, too. Cichy missed half the season and Biegel missed two games — the seven-point losses to Ohio State and Michigan. Sophomore T.J. Edwards actually became Wisconsin’s leading tackler.
Wilcox, the defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach, left for the head coaching job at California.
Kerry Coombs, Ohio State
One more tough decision that came down to a couple of archrivals. Michigan’s secondary was incredible, one of the best in the nation. Ohio State’s was as well, and maybe it’s not fair to Michael Zordich, but like on the defensive line, the Buckeyes were much younger in the secondary than the senior-heavy Wolverines.
Three of those Ohio State defensive backs are likely going to be first-round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Buckeyes’ secondary also accounted for six of Ohio State’s seven interceptions returned for touchdowns.